Development and Psychopathology

Regular Articles

Maternal sensitivity buffers the adrenocortical implications of intimate partner violence exposure during early childhood

Leah C. Hibela1 c1, Douglas A. Grangera2, Clancy Blaira3, Martha J. Coxa4 and The Family Life Project Key Investigators

a1 Purdue University

a2 Johns Hopkins University

a3 New York University

a4 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


This study prospectively examined the effect of intimate partner violence (IPV) on adrenocortical reactivity and recovery during early childhood. The sample (n = 1102 mother–infant dyads; 49.2% male) was racially diverse and from predominantly low-income, rural communities. To measure IPV exposure mothers completed the Conflicts Tactics Scale, and her caretaking behaviors were observed when her child was approximately 7, 15, and 24 months of age. Children's saliva samples, later assayed for cortisol, were collected around challenge tasks designed to elicit emotional reactivity. IPV was related to a trajectory of increased cortisol reactivity from infancy to toddlerhood. By contrast, the trajectory for non-IPV-exposed children decreased in cortisol reactivity across 7 to 24 months of age. At the 24-month assessment, on average, toddlers did not exhibit a cortisol reaction; however, those exposed to high levels of violence continued to have reactivity. Accumulative levels of IPV across the first 2 years of life predicted cortisol reactivity at 24 months of age. Early (7-month) sensitive maternal behavior moderated this relationship, so that only children exposed to both early insensitivity and high accumulated IPV exhibited increased reactivity at the 24-month assessment. Findings are discussed in relation to the risky family framework.

(Online publication April 18 2011)


c1 Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Leah C. Hibel, Department of Child Development and Family Studies, 101 Gates Road, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47906; E-mail:


Support for this research was provided by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant P01 HD39667, with cofunding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The Family Life Project Key Investigators include Lynne Vernon-Feagans, Martha Cox, Clancy Blair, Peg Burchinal, Linda Burton, Keith Crnic, Ann Crouter, Patricia Garrett-Peters, Mark Greenberg, Stephanie Lanza, Roger Mills-Koonce, Debra Skinner, Cynthia Stifter, Emily Werner, and Michael Willoughby. We thank the many families, colleagues, research assistants, and technicians who made this study possible. We also thank Laura VanderDrift for her helpful edits along with the four anonymous reviewers who greatly strengthened this manuscript. In the interest of full disclosure, the second author (D.A.G.) is founder and Chief Scientific and Strategy Advisor at Salimetrics, LLC (State College, PA). This relationship is managed by the Conflict of Interest Committee at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.